In a Shiva-fixated city, shehnai maestro, Bismillah Khan, then 12 years old, first caught a glimpse of the boss. Little Bismillah was practising on the stone balcony of the Balaji temple when Shiva – the god, who locals say will never leave the city – visited him doused in ittar.
“And Shivji told him: Son, play. Your name is joined with mine… Ishwar, Allah, Bismillah,” says Ustad Nazim Khan, Bismillah’s son.
Fantastic as this story may seem, the late maestro did talk of Hindu gods and goddesses as if he lived with them. “Durga, Parvati, Krishna, Kanhaiya… he knew of gods and avatars that even we had scant knowledge of,” says Krishna Ballesh, Bismillah’s disciple and a shehnai player in Chennai. “The maestro always believed goddess Saraswati helped him play the instrument.”
Today, Bismillah’s family could do with some divine intervention. One of his grandsons has sold off his shehnai, and there are reports that the maestro’s descendants are in a state of financial turmoil. However, is the legacy of cultural syncretism – embodied by both Bismillah and his city of Varanasi – faring any better?
A case of exception
Bismillah Khan played in temples. And he led the Muhurram procession playing the shehnai from his home to the Karbala Grounds, accompanied by Pandit Ramlal on the khurdak, and Mohanlal Prasanna, playing the shehnai. In Muharram, there is space for poetry but no music, but between the ’50s and the ’60s, Khan was a rising star. He brooked no orthodoxy. “It really didn’t matter to him where he played… if he played in temples, no one forced him to do that or told him not to,” says retired professor Shahena Rizvi.
This neat picture of cultural syncretism is, in large measure, still the story of Varanasi. But it has to be seen in context. Varanasi made a case for Bismillah; the city and its clerics, both Hindu and Muslim, made space for his unique talent.
“The ’50s was also the time when India was interested in the secular tradition,” says vocalist Vidya Rao of the Benaras gharana. Bismillah had also elevated the shehnai, an instrument that would pipe up at weddings and temples, to a concert instrument.
But the carte blanche was not extended to him or his family, leave alone his community, beyond a few decades. Unlike Awadh where syncretism was a choice exercised by the Nawabs in cooperation with the Hindu elite, Varanasi was conscious of accommodating the Nawabi aristocracy of Avadh and their large retinue of attendants – men of specific uses such as dyers, craftsmen, weavers – who were deported from Lucknow by the British.
The House of Bismillah Khan
Bunkars (weavers of the Benarasi sari) comprise the majority of Muslims in the city. The Muslim musician is a minority, says Abdul Bismillah, who has written a well-known Hindi novel, Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya, on the city’s weaver community. The Muslim working class, of which Bismillah Khan’s family is a part (“Father was an artist but shehnai was his profession, our lives depended on it,” says Nazim), co-exists with the Hindu working class and their patrons in peace but with anxieties.
The house of Bismillah
“Have you come for a programme?”, asks little Tanzila, Nazim’s niece as she stands hopefully by the doorstep in the ancestral house at Sarai Haraha and then slips in the Bismillah family’s calling card into my hands.
At this three-storey residence, near Dalmandi, a mohalla where till the late 19th century, courtesans would wind up their harmoniums late into the night, members of the Khan family are trying to take the family legacy forward, mainly to earn a living.
Toy trader Asad Abbas, one of Bismillah’s grandsons, is pumping his middle-aged lungs to play the shehnai in order to supplement the family income. Ali Abbas, a son-in-law, and another grandson Asfaq Haider, also play the instrument. On the ground floor, a four-poster bed that is curtained with blankets to put together a makeshift echo chamber, Akbar Hussain - a blind nephew of the maestro - holds his breath and releases it into the shehnai. His fingers clamp the wrong hole of the instrument. He lets out a mumbled curse.
Nazim Khan says after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, his friend, a sitar player, told him to stop going to the Balaji temple for practice. “The tension in the city would ebb and I would again resume…. After being warned thrice, I stopped going altogether.”
Age-old ties in the city fray and mend themselves all the time. When the government awarded Bismillah its highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 2001, there were members of the city’s artistic community who questioned the choice over another Benarasi, tabla maestro Pandit Kishan Maharaj.
Is Varanasi syncretic? Yes and no
Cultural syncretism is, therefore, both present and absent in Varanasi. In most cases, it’s a matter of give and take. “The bottomline is economics but I can’t say there is no bhaagidaari (participation),” says theatre artiste Kunwar Aggarwal. Social and business relations are participatory, but cultural boundaries are well defined.
“The cloth spread over many temple idols is woven by Muslim weavers. But before putting them on, the cloth is ‘purified,” says an artisan on condition of anonymity. “For Dussehra, Muslim artisans do get to make Raavan effigies but then we do have expertise in bamboo and paper crafts as we make taziya during Muhurram….”
In recent times, Nazim Khan says there are artistes from both communities joining the Muhurram. He gives out two names but says he does not have their mobile numbers. “Pyare Lal plays the khurdak. Mohan Lal Tyagi plays the shehnai…. Even when they don’t bring their instruments, they do walk with us,” he says.
Varanasi’s main cultural festivals tied to its temples have also been the testing grounds for its composite culture. On the late Mahant Veerbhadra Mishra’s initiative, Mumtaz Khan, Nazir’s cousin and shehnai player, was the first Muslim artiste to take part in the Sangeet Samaroh festival at the Sankat Mochan temple in early 2000s. There have been many since and not just from Bismillah Khan’s family. But Ghulam Ali’s 2015 concert at the temple became controversial. The local grapevine is that Veerbhadra’s son, Vishwambar Nath, who has succeeded him as the Mahant, “met Prime Minister Modi, apparently to make amends for issuing the invitation.” Ali in other reports, however, said it was he who had made the proposal to perform.
The core of Varanasi society has always been staunchly Hindu and doctrinaire. In 2014, Kashninath Singh, the city’s celebrated writer, received anonymous phone calls for portraying the deity Krishna as bearded and balding in his Hindi novel Upsanghar. “Would Krishna have been a radical had he remained alive long after the Mahabharata? I imagined him as a man and not a god. I was asked why I don’t write like this about Mohammed or Issa….”
Progessives of Varanasi have taken out processions at the time of communal tensions, adds Singh. “Poet Naazir Benarasi, a contemporary of Bismillah, would often meet us half-way. He would say: ‘Hindu ko toh yakin hai ki Musalman hai Naazir/ Kuch Musalaman ko shaq hai ki Hindu toh nahi.’(Hindus know for certain that Naazir is a Muslim, but some Muslims wonder if Naazir is a Hindu after all). ”
Bismillah Khan embodied Varanasi’s composite culture by just being committed to his art. But does the responsibility to make syncretism work lie only on the minority community? In Varanasi today there are just over a 100 shehnai players left, struggling to make ends meet, says Nazim Khan. Bismillah Khan’s lack of artistic successors is a comment on not just how society treats its famous names, but how differently it treats the lesser-known ones.